A local congresswoman called Friday for a congressional committee to investigate treatment of racehorses at Santa Anita Park and throughout the country due to the deaths of 22 horses at the Arcadia racetrack in less than three months.
"I am outraged by the deaths at Santa Anita racetrack," Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, said in a statement. "Animals deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion, and the use of race-day medication like Lasix must stop. The U.S. is an outlier when it comes to the practice of injecting horses with this drug on race-day and we need answers on the impact of this practice at Santa Anita and throughout the country.
"I am calling on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to investigate and hold a hearing on the treatment of horses at Santa Anita and throughout our country, and to examine legislation like the Horseracing Integrity Act that would improve safety for racehorses," Chu said. "I will work with my colleagues to ensure that all animals are treated humanely and to get to the bottom of this crisis. Until we know the horses are safe, the Santa Anita racetrack should be closed."
Santa Anita has indefinitely suspended racing since the main dirt track was closed March 5 for further testing, with 3-year-old filly Princess Lili B becoming the latest casualty Thursday when she broke both of her front legs during a morning workout on the main track.
Shortly after the filly's death, Belinda Stronach -- chair and president of the company that owns Santa Anita Park -- announced in an "open letter about the future of thoroughbred racing in California" that it would take the "unprecedented step of declaring a zero tolerance for race day medication" at Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields, a racetrack in Berkeley also owned by The Stronach Group. Responding to Chu's statement, Santa Anita Park's director of publicity, Mike Willman, noted that "medication issues were dealt with very comprehensively in the form of an open letter from our chairman and president."
"At this time, we will not be elaborating on this statement but are hopeful Congresswoman Chu will take these groundbreaking protocols into account as she reviews this entire situation," Willman wrote in an e-mail.
Santa Anita Park has come under fire from animal rights activists, with demonstrators from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protesting Thursday outside Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey's downtown Los Angeles office to urge a criminal investigation into the trainers whose horses have died since the start of the meet.
"At this time, the District Attorney's Office has assigned investigators to work with the California Horse Racing Board," Greg Risling of the District Attorney's Office told City News Service.
"What has happened at Santa Anita over the last few weeks is beyond heartbreaking," Stronach wrote in the open letter. "It is unacceptable to the public and, as people who deeply love horses, to everyone at The Stronach Group and Santa Anita.
The sport of horse racing is the last great sporting legacy platform to be modernized. If we expect our sport to grow for future generations, we must raise our standards."
She called it a "watershed moment" and wrote that the mandate "encompasses a complete revision of the current medication policy to improve the safety of our equine and human athletes and to raise the integrity of our sport."
The use of riding crops to prod horses to run faster also has been banned at Santa Anita. "A cushion crop should only be used as a corrective safety measure," Stronach's letter stated. "While we firmly believe our jockeys have not purposely been mistreating their mounts, it is time to make this change." Tim Ritvo, The Stronach Group's chief operating officer, called California "ripe for a change" and told reporters Thursday that the company was "announcing a complete transformation of our racetracks in California."
"Any change is hard, but the love of the horse supersedes all else. We know first-hand that owners, trainers and jockeys love and care deeply for their horses. We, too, love the horses and we're making these changes to put the health and welfare of the horse and rider first," Ritvo said Thursday. Following the announcement about race-day medication, PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo lauded Santa Anita for "standing up to all the trainers, veterinarians and owners who have used any means -- from the whip to the hypodermic syringe -- to force injured or unfit horses to run."
"This is a watershed moment for racing, and PETA urges every track to recognize that the future is now and to follow suit," Guillermo said in a statement. "This ground-breaking plan, which PETA has pushed for, will not bring back the 22 horses who have died recently, but it will prevent the deaths of many more and will set a new standard for racing that means less suffering for thoroughbreds at this track. Racing must go the way of the animal circus, but this will eliminate some of the misery on its way out."
Mike Marten, a spokesman for the California Horse Racing Board, said Thursday in a statement provided to City News Service that the board is "greatly disturbed by this latest fatality and is committing its resources to helping identify the cause or causes of these fatalities and taking remedial action as necessary."
The issue is on the board's agenda for its public meeting next Thursday. The CHRB statement noted that the board conducts investigations into the deaths of any horses that die at a CHRB-licensed facility, and that the investigations include necropsies and can take several months and can involve interviews with the trainer and the attending veterinarian.
On March 8, Santa Anita announced a set of new protocols, including the creation of an equine-welfare director to be filled by an accredited veterinarian, a requirement that trainers who want to put a horse through timed, high-speed training exercises will be required to ask for permission 24 hours in advance to help track veterinarians identify "at-risk" horses by evaluating past performance, workout data and physical inspections, along with hiring additional veterinarians "to observe all horses entering and exiting the tracks each morning during training hours."
Between December and February of the previous year, 10 horses died at Santa Anita, compared with eight in 2016-17 and 14 in 2015-16. The track averaged about 50 deaths per year from 2008-18, according to data from the California Horse Racing Board. The unusually large amount of rain that has fallen over the Southland this winter has been mentioned as a possible factor in explaining the surge in deaths.